Azerbaijani government-affiliated media and analysts are directly blaming Iran’s government for organizing the deadly attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran, even as official Baku is stopping short of such overt accusations.
The January 27 attack, which killed one Azerbaijani security guard, is the most serious escalation yet in the tense relations between the two neighboring countries, which have been deteriorating since the 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Even on the day of the attack one news website associated with Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense, Caliber.az, directly accused Iran’s special services of planning it.
Since then the accusation has been made repeatedly in a variety of media, and Azerbaijani analysts say that it is the prevailing opinion in Baku, even if government officials are shying away from openly making the explosive allegations.
“Baku definitely believes that Iran was behind the attack,” analyst Fuad Shahbaz told Eurasianet.
Iran detained a suspect, Yasin Hosseinzadeh, and has presented his motivation as a personal one. He has given press interviews from detention in which he says he went to the embassy to look for his wife after he believed she disappeared there last year.
Many in Baku are skeptical of that account and have pointed out obvious pieces of circumstantial evidence of an official hand in the event, such as the lax response by Iranian police to the attack. The official explanation from Tehran also has been inconsistent; police initially said that the attacker had brought his two children with him before surveillance video was released that showed no children.
“For nearly half an hour, while this terrorist managed to enter the Azerbaijani embassy twice, the police and the Security Service did not show up in any way. This can only happen if the above-mentioned bodies have received a certain order,” a former foreign minister of Azerbaijan, Tofig Zulfugarov, told Caliber.az on January 31.
President Ilham Aliyev also publicly called into question the Iranian police response, although he did not go so far as to make the conclusion that Zulfugarov did. Aliyev told an audience of Turkish members of parliament on February 1 that “despite the fact that the terrorist act committed on our embassy took a significant amount of time, the police and Iranian security forces did not take any serious measures,” according to the account on Aliyev’s website.
Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry also has made only indirect accusations. On the day of the attack it said that Iran’s government had failed to ensure the embassy’s security under its international obligations to do so, and added: “We are of the opinion that the recent anti-Azerbaijani campaign against our country in Iran led to such attack against our diplomatic mission.” Then, on February 1, the ministry accused Iran of blocking a statement by the Non-Aligned Movement condemning the attack.
The Israel connection
In early January Azerbaijan appointed its first-ever ambassador to Israel and has recently made moves toward opening an embassy in Tel Aviv for the first time. Many in Baku believe that this may have been the motivation for the attack, Shahbaz said.
Of the government and government-friendly media directly blaming Tehran for the attack, one curious feature has been that they have lined up Israeli officials to make the claim.
“This is a demonstrative terrorist act aimed at intimidating Azerbaijan. The terrorist act was definitely coordinated with the Iranian authorities," one such analyst, Avraham Shmulevich, told Caliber.az. “This amounts to a declaration of war, because an attack on an embassy is an attack on a country. I really don’t believe that it was the act of a single man and that the Iranian special services were not behind it,” another Israeli analyst, Mikhail Finkel, told Minval.az.
The day after the embassy attack, a drone strike on an Iranian military facility was widely reported to have been carried out by Israel.
On February 1, Azerbaijan’s defense ministry reported that “at the initiative of the Israeli side” the defense ministers of the two countries spoke. The Azerbaijani official, Zakir Hasanov, “expressed confidence that cooperation between the countries in the military sphere will expand,” according to a ministry readout.
For its part, Tehran has sought to play down the attack, and has insinuated that Israel may be involved.
In a phone call the day after, Iran President Ibrahim Raisi expressed his condolences to Aliyev. "The governments of Iran and Azerbaijan will not allow the relations between them to be influenced by the insinuations of the ill-wishers of the two nations,” Raisi said, according to a readout from his office.
The speaker of Iran’s parliament warned Azerbaijan against an “emotional decision” following the embassy attack. “Emotional decisions regarding ties between the two countries is what their enemies and ill-wishers of the Islamic world, especially the Zionist regime, want,” the speaker, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, said on January 30.
Ties between Azerbaijan and Iran have long been uneasy but they have deteriorated substantially following the 2020 war, as Iran has increasingly supported Armenia and strongly opposed Azerbaijan’s desire to build a “corridor” through southern Armenia that Tehran fears could effectively cut off its border with Armenia. The two sides have carried out military exercises on the other’s border and have issued barely veiled threats against one another’s territory.
Azerbaijan already has responded to the attack in Tehran by evacuating its embassy and carrying out a series of arrests of suspected Iranian spies in Azerbaijan.
As for any further responses, Baku may be waiting to see how the international environment develops, including in Russia’s war in Ukraine and the fate of the nuclear deal with Western countries, said Zaur Shiriyev, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“There have been times in the past when the West had a security perception viewing Azerbaijan as sandwiched between two rogue states, though that has changed over the years due to the West’s changing perception about the role of Russia and Iran in the broader neighborhood,” Shiriyev told Eurasianet. “Probably Baku is looking for a return to those days, which would mean more Western support, so Baku is going to wait to see what changes in Iran and Russia. It already has changed to some extent, especially after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, as Baku's regional security concerns are being taken into account more and Europe has become more interested in Azerbaijani energy.”
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.